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As Belichick coaching tree grows, so too does the ripple effect

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  January 14, 2010 08:06 AM

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Count these among the things we may never know: Did Patriots coach Bill Belichick get any resistance on fourth-and-2? Does he get challenged by defensive coordinator Dean Pees? Do the assistant coaches of the Patriots challenge their boss or do they merely execute what he prefers?

For all of the things that bogged down the Patriots this season, perhaps the most unexpected was this: the coaching. The Pats made curious decisions in some games and seemed alarmingly disorganized during others. Prior to fourth-and-2 in Indianapolis, for example, the Pats took timeouts before first down and fourth following a change in possession, the most obvious example of a breakdown in communication, decision-making or both.

And we have yet to even mention the simplistic approach of their play-calling, in which the Pats seemed to use a connect-the-dots mentality: 12-to-83, 12-to-81. Or bust.

All of this brings us to the dynamic between Belichick and his assistants, something addressed between the coach and reporters during the following exchange at Belichick's postmortem press conference on Monday.

Reporter: "This is kind of a hard one, but a lot of the guys that are on your staff now - as talented as they may be - weren't on your staff before you were Bill Belichick, three-time Super Bowl Champion. I wonder if there isn't a level of awe that they may feel to be on your staff, whereas Josh McDaniels, Tom Dimitroff, Scott Pioli, Charlie Weis - you all came up together. What I'm driving at is are you getting enough pushback from the guys on your staff? Do you know what I mean?"

Belichick: "Yeah, absolutely. And I've talked to other coaches about that - coaches that are pretty well established, and I get the nature of your question. There's definitely Romeo [Crennel] or Charlie [Weis] or somebody - they wouldn't really be afraid to at times say, 'What are you doing? Are you serious? Are you seriously considering that?' And then there is certainly another level of coach that at that time or at this time, they just wouldn't say that to me. And I mean, I understand that and that's ... and I was like that.

"There was a point in time where I was like that, where I would never say to - whether it was coach [Ted] Marchibroda or Red Miller or whoever - I wouldn't. And then there was a point in time where I would, whether it was Bill [Parcells] or - mostly Bill. There's a point in time where you reach a point or you have a relationship and you feel more comfortable saying things that you just wouldn't have said - even with that [same] guy, a few years earlier. I definitely get where you're at on that and I mean, I understand that.

"We try to have an open communication, an open forum on some things, and some things aren't open. Some things are, 'This is the way they're going to be.' But I understand what you're getting at and I think that's something, as a head coach, you have to be conscious of and I am. I'm not saying I do a great job of it. I don't know whether I do or not, but I'm definitely conscious of that and I get what you're saying there."

The turnover on the Patriots coaching staff has been cited before, of course, but the ripple effects may be greater than any of us could possibly know. The Patriots have not won a Super Bowl since longtime Belichick loyalists Weis and Crennel left the team following the 2004 season (and a victory in the 2005 Super Bowl), which may be a coincidence as much as anything else. Or maybe it isn't. In the case of the Patriots offense, Weis eventually was replaced by Josh McDaniels, who did not truly blossom until his third year on the job. Crennel gave way to Eric Mangini, who gave way to Dean Pees.

Now, Crennel and Weis are in Kansas City, McDaniels is in Denver, Mangini is in Cleveland, where he lured former Pats special teams coach Brad Seely. Belichick's most valuable coaching methods and secrets are now scattered around the NFL, all while the Patriots routinely have been thrust into a state of transition. One coach seemingly has led to the next, creating the kind of instability (on multiple levels) that can eat at an organization from the inside out.

None of this is anybody's fault, but it has indisputably made Belichick's life more difficult. Even player personnel man Scott Pioli, a true disciple of Belichick and Parcells, has moved out of the house. In sports, as in any other walk of life, the best and healthiest relationships are forged over time, and there is simply no way to speed up the process. Undoubtedly, that is a big reason Belichick generally has seemed to believe in hiring from within, taking advantage of whatever time and trust he has built with his staff.

Still, when Belichick elected to go for it on fourth-and-2, did anyone give him any resistance? Would someone like quarterbacks coach Bill O'Brien even feel empowered to do so at this stage? Maybe someone like Weis might have advised Belichick to punt and maybe he wouldn't have. There is no way of knowing for sure if Belichick would have overruled just the same. But the important thing is that the Pats would have gone through a process that, in many ways, is more important than the actual decision itself, independent of the outcome.

For all of Belichick's critics, two things about him should never be questioned: his ability and his desire to win. Most everything he does is dictated by the latter. Belichick would be among the first to tell you that a healthy exchange between coaches and decision-makers is vital to any process, and Michael Holley's "Patriot Reign" as well as David Halberstam's "Education of a Coach" certainly paint the picture of a man who is thorough and detailed. When it comes to football, particularly, Belichick seems entirely open to other opinions and ideas -- assuming they are coming from someone he trusts.

But now, as the Patriots stand at what seems to be a critical crossroads in their history, the following question is nestled among the many:

How long does it take to build something like that?

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About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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